Document 16: "The White Woman's Burden," The Nation, 16 February 1921.
This remarkable survey of National Woman's Party members by The Nation magazine queried members about their views of attempts to exclude black women from the franchise. About a third of the 160 members replied, expressing a range of views, assertions, and evasions.
IN February there will be held in Washington a meeting of women which will be comparable only to their first great gathering in Seneca Falls in 1848." This, though from the Press Chairman of the National Woman's Party, is no overstatement. The three-day convention of the National Woman's Party on the 101st anniversary of Susan B. Anthony's birth will be notable, not merely because of the character of the women who attend, nor because they justly celebrate their important part in winning for this country political sex equality, but also because of the opportunity that this great yet incomplete victory affords.
For incomplete it is. The Nineteenth Amendment has been ratified. The world has been told that America, which first lit the beacon of political democracy on earth, has at last joined the nations which make no political distinction among their citizens because of sex. Yet some three million women--the women of color--in the United States south of the Mason and Dixon lines are still disfranchised. In The Nation of October 6, William Pickens describes the unconstitutional and illegal devices by which the American woman citizen of Africa, or of mixed European and African descent, is robbed of her vote. This article was sent to each one of the 160 members of the National Woman's Party. With it went four questions:
1. Do you approve of the attempt to nullify the Nineteenth Amendment in regard to colored women?
2. What steps, if any, do you purpose to take to help remedy this situation?
3. Do you consider this a matter for official action and effort by the National Women's Party?
4. What suggestions have you for a course of procedure?
In sending these letters, The Nation felt confident that no body of women would be more alive to the issue involved, to its identity with the bitter fight which they had just waged and apparently brought to a triumphant conclusion, indeed, to its inseparability from the whole fabric of our democracy. Would not these "suffrage radicals," fresh from the hardships of disfranchisement and discrimination, see clearly the far graver and greater injustice now being treacherously and dishonestly worked on an integral part of their electorate?
About one-third of those written to replied. The tenor of these responses was most gratifying. The majority declared themselves outraged at the disfranchisement of American colored women and resolved to fight it through. A few were evasive and noncommittal, one or two opposed. Yet, if any considerable part of the hundred or more who did not reply is even indifferent, the outlook is none too encouraging.
The Nation feels that this issue is fundamental and that whatever the arguments for or against the continuation of the National Woman's Party, as an organization, its members should realize that their goal has not been achieved and the Nineteenth Amendment not won until it means the enfranchisement of every woman regardless of color or race. Will the women of America accept this honor, responsibility, and duty?
Among those replies which appeared to be unfavorable is that of Mrs. Oliver H.P. Belmont (a native of Alabama), from whom was received the following:
Mrs. Oliver H.P. Belmont wishes me to acknowledge your letter of September 24 asking her to answer four questions. Mrs. Belmont says she finds it needless to give the answers to these questions. Louise Galvin, Secretary.
As well as the following from Charleston, S.C:
I have yours of 24th inst. asking if I approve the disenfranchising of the newly enfranchised Negro women. I say emphatically no. At the same time, I say most emphatically, let the South handle its own problems, just as I say let the Californians solve their own problems; one in the North or West, where the proportion of Negro population is about one to every one thousand white, cannot possibly undertake to give advice or to lecture us in the South, where we have communities where the Negro either predominates numerically, or is at rate of half and half. We in the South would not presume to go to the Western coast and undertake to settle the trials and problems caused in California by the yellow race problem, and no more can the North come into the South and undertake to solve our problems. If you were living in a community, like this city, where we have half and half, or in Beaufort, S.C., where the Negroes outnumber the whites and where they are constantly laced by the white race coming from a distance to meddle into affairs of which they know nothing because they have no experience, you would then perhaps get something of the point of view of the South... Susan P. Frost.
Somewhat more noncommittal is the brief reply:
I'm very sorry to have nothing to say on this important question. Frankly, I don't see any clear solution. I shall read with the greatest interest what others have to say about it. Martha Burke.
Entirely noncommittal is that of Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman who writes:
Your second letter about the colored woman voter received. I do not give views or interviews save as I am moved to on my own initiative. In that case, I seek to publish them professionally. C.P. Gilman.
A teacher of Latin in a Georgia college, after admitting some haziness on the whole question, says:
As you know we white women were prevented from voting in November by the registration clause. The more I think on the race problem the more insoluble it seems.
Becoming slightly more positive is the reply of the National Chairman, who writes:
We have just received your letter of September 24 attached to the October 6 issue of The Nation . In reply I am writing to inform you that a bill for the enforcement of the Nineteenth Amendment was introduced last spring in Congress, but was not acted upon owing to the fact that Congress adjourned before ratification of the suffrage amendment was completed. This enforcement resolution will be brought up at the coming session of Congress and we will endeavor to have it passed. Alice Paul.
Of the stirring letters, those which breathe the true spirit of militant American democracy, the following are but a few specimens:
1. I disapprove wholly of every attempt to nullify the Nineteenth Amendment, or to infringe in any way upon the right to vote of any colored women or colored men, or any other citizens of the United States who are not actively insane or undergoing punishment for nonpolitical crimes.
2. I propose to work with other voters for the passage of the anti-lynching law, and for reduction in the representation of any State which may not obey the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and uphold, in letter and in spirit, the Nineteenth Amendment.
3. It is my intention to bring up this subject at the meeting of the National Woman's Party, hoping for official action at that meeting, followed by effective insistence upon equality before the law for all women. Florence Kelley.
And a letter from Mrs. Harriot Stanton Blatch, somewhat too long for reprinting, which includes "an old yellow pencil note of my mother's which shows how she felt in regard to our treatment of the colored race. I feel exactly the same."
From distant California came this letter:
1. Decidedly not. The National Woman's Party, of which I have been a member since its foundation, has fought for sex equality at the polls, subject only to the same limitations as apply to men. Any attempt to disfranchise women on the ground of color deals as mortal a blow to the idea of democracy in general and the purpose of the Nineteenth Amendment in particular as to disfranchise laboring women on the ground of class. The Nineteenth Amendment, in other words, is more than skin deep and is color blind. White women who cannot consider this question apart from race prejudice and who are willing that the spirit and purpose of the Nineteenth Amendment be nullified where black women are concerned, should keep in mind the selfish consideration that once the Nineteenth Amendment is tampered with where white women are concerned. It is not that equality which is justice. We aimed at justice.
2. I shall call attention to this matter in the San Francisco Civic Center, also in any other organization where publica action on their part would prove influential. My association with the National Woman's Party, however, has converted me wholly to the idea of political action on these political questions. Concerted public opinion has to work through these political channels by which alone a movement becomes practically effective. I consider that there has been sufficient education in this country on the subject of political equality and I would therefore recommend that the National Woman's Party with its equipped and well-organized body, its unparalleled leadership and sophistication in politics undertake such action as is necessary to protect the Nineteenth Amendment. The Nation probably knows that in the middle of February there is to be a national convention of the National Woman's Party at which time the matter of dissolution or further continuation of the party is to be voted upon. My personal desire is for its continuation of the party is to be voted upon. My personal desire is for its continuation in order that it may carry on its fight for equality in the fullest sense and I shall recommend to the convention, if it votes to continue that this matter under present consideration be the first one for which a fight be made by the organization. Sporadic, individual action here and there is of little avail. even letters to congressmen and senators, unless they let loose upon them in terrifying numbers, are of little avail. There must be a responsible body, efficient and tireless such as the N.W. P. has proved to be, undertaking the work.
3. My reply to question 2 covers affirmatively this question....
4. I feel this question is one for consideration by people more skilled in political strategy than I am, but in general I would suggest that "the appropriate legislation" called for in the second paragraph of the Nineteenth Amendment, to be passed by Congress for the unqualified enforcement of the amendment, be made as strong as that legislation by which the Prohibition Amendment is protected and that, if necessary, the N.W. P. if it remains an active organization insist on the appointment of Federal officers to protect the rights of citizens to their vote... Sara Bard Field.
And the following from the Atlantic Coast:
On February 15 next there will be held a national convention by the National Woman's Party in Washington D.C. The paramount issue before that convention will be the question of the future existence of the Woman's Party which at present has attained the only object of its organization, namely, the passage of the Susan B. Anthony Suffrage Amendment. If it is decided at the convention that we continue to exist as a new organization one matter will be paramount, whether our future existence be for political or benevolent purposes. This matter will go with us, whether we indorse it or not, that of the immediate action taken by a large portion of the Southern States after the recent ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, by which all women, white or colored have been disenfranchised. In other words, that portion of our country which has so persistently opposed the object of the Woman's Party, has turned its defeat into a practical victory for itself, by callously defying the Nineteenth Federal Amendment, as was the case regarding the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. Moreover, the situation is much more vital in regard to the Nineteenth Amendment, for never before has there been a trained organization of the leading women of the nation associated together for seven years for the sole purpose of carrying through a Federal amendment. The Woman's Party, if it is to have a future existence, will stand or fall in accordance with the path it chooses in this matter... Ella Ruth Murray.
And this from the chairman of the Information Committee of the Woman's Republican Club:
Your courteous inquiry of the 19th inst. in relation to suffrage was delayed in Washington. It is here at last and I hasten to say in answer to your four questions:
1. I do not.
2. Agitation: appeals to Congress, the courts, and above all to the press and the public. Aggressive action all along the line. A man or women who attempts to deprive a citizen of his or her right to vote should be disfranchised.
3. I do most assuredly.
4. I prefer to submit this in a later communication. It is a proposition involving serious thought. I stand with the women of America, white or colored, in the battle for every right to which they are entitled under the Constitution. Jean L. Milholland.
Finally a vigorous letter which the writer subsequently forbade the use of "either in the compiling of statistics or otherwise unless you use them in full, including number 5":
1. No--neither in regard to colored men or colored women.
2. I shall join the N.A.A.C.P. if they will send me their membership blanks. I shall urge colored people to join the Socialist Party which will give them membership in the party on equal terms with the whites and with the triumph of socialism will give them political and industrial justice.
3. Certainly not. the National Woman's Party was formed for the purpose of abolishing discrimination against women--specifically suffrage discriminations. In the task of freeing all women--colored as well as white--suffragists were not helped much by colored men voters. On the contrary, the suffrage referendum of 1915 (Penna) was beaten chiefly by votes in wards (Phila) where the Republican machine is strongest.
4. The colored voters should demand that this present Republican congress should cut down the representation from the Southern States where the colored voters are disfranchised and should threaten to bolt the party if this is not done. As long as the colored voters continue to bend before the Republican Party, so long will they be enslaved.
5. I don't know why The Nation has arrogated to itself the right to catechize the National Woman's Party. The Nation was utterly indifferent when the members of the N.W.P. were illegally thrown into jail for asking for the vote. Mary Winsor.
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